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Australian Pinot Noir: panel tasting results

Decanter experts give their verdict, tasting notes and drinking windows on Australian Pinot Noir.

The summary

An impressive set of results, underlining the quality and diversity on offer in Australian Pinot Noir, with both the 2012 and ’13 vintages ideal for savvy wine lovers to snap up, comments Nick Stock…

The judges tasted a solid representation of Australia’s Pinot Noir offering – one that included a number of iconic winemakers historically recognised as making wines at the top level. These results reflect the quality of the producers as well as the quality of the vintages currently in the market.

With the bulk of the tasting coming from the widely regarded 2012 vintage, the results are justifiably strong. But 2013 is shaping up to be as good as 2012, perhaps delivering wines that are more immediately approachable and looking very complete. as to which will ultimately prove the better, it’s a debate that has been bubbling away among Aussie Pinot makers over recent months. The 2012s seem to have a greater emphasis on structure and are more reticent in achieving their final form. The 2013s are showy, fleshy and deeply fruited, instantly seductive and undeniably strong.

All of Australia’s major Pinot Noir producing regions were represented in this line-up and, from a sheer numbers point of view, both the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula asserted themselves as the major forces.

It is easy to fathom the hype and interest that has built around Tasmanian Pinot Noir based on the very strong showing here. By comparison with regions like the Yarra, Tasmania accounts for a tiny volume of wine but achieves consistently high quality. The scale of production there also generally dictates higher average prices for the wines.

Significantly though, the Adelaide hills has a very strong showing, capped off by an Outstanding winner. The region has been long discussed as one that could deliver on the promise of great Pinot Noir but has struggled in the consistency stakes. Clearly the quality of the 2012 vintage has overcome anything that has held it back.

The four Outstandings are diverse expressions of Pinot, which bodes well for the belief in great Australian terroirs and the ability of this fickle grape to convey their qualities.

Gary Farr has been long hailed as a pioneering force in putting Australian Pinot on the map and, apart from his own Farrside being recognised as Outstanding, his connection to two of the other top wines cannot be overlooked. Farr worked as a consultant to Curly Flat’s Phillip Moraghan for a number of years as a winemaking advisor and certainly influenced Moraghan’s approach and philosophy. Farr is also great mates with Neil Pike, the winemaker behind Pike & Joyce; the impact of great Burgundies and chats on Pinot style shared between them cannot be underestimated.

The scores

71 wines tasted

Entry criteria: producers and UK agents were invited to submit their latest-release Pinot Noir from Victoria, Tasmania or Adelaide Hills. One wine per producer was permitted.

Outstanding 4

Highly recommended 16

Recommended 48

Fair 3

Poor 0

Faulty 0

The results

With a more sophisticated global outlook, Australia’s Pinot Noir producers – from across Victoria, Tasmania and Adelaide Hills – are proving they can mix it with the world’s best. Georgina Hindle reports…

Our judges praised a positive, enjoyable tasting which highlighted the potential for Australian Pinots – and not just those from the normally star-studded Mornington Peninsula.

‘The fact we’re tasting wines from across three states already shows there’s a distinctive regional character to Australian Pinot that’s developing rapidly,’ said Anthony Rose. ‘A few years ago we’d have talked about Oregon, California, New Zealand and of course Burgundy, and maybe forgotten about Australia. But there’s a lot of excitement around Australian Pinots, which can rival the world’s best.’

Justin Knock MW agreed, finding ‘a surprising level of class’ in the line-up, with winemakers ‘aspiring to higher quality levels and being more sophisticated in terms of what they’re trying to achieve’. He explained: ‘They’re not trying to overoak, be overripe or target a certain market. They are making interesting, structured, delicate styles that you won’t find in Pinots from California or Chile, and with a reliable softness of fruit that you won’t necessarily get from France.’

Roger Jones was ‘underwhelmed’, recalling the superb results from a previous Decanter panel tasting of 81 Pinots from Victoria and Tasmania (August 2013 issue). Part of his disappointment came down to ‘underperforming’ wines from Mornington Peninsula. Rose agreed ‘they may not have hit all the high notes they should’ given the region’s reputation, but ‘there were certainly three excellent wines showing attractive red fruit character and regional identity.’

Yarra Valley also failed to fully enthral our judges. Rose said it ‘didn’t show the heights’ but Knock praised the efforts of winemakers there trying to push the envelope. ‘The wines have an austerity, sharpness and a tautness – they are much more structural compared to others,’ he said.

Rose lauded the quality of Tasmania’s wines ‘from the Tamar Valley all the way down to Hobart’. Knock was equally impressed with the ‘surprising opulence’ of Pinots from the island state. He found ‘rounder flavours, more alcohol and more of a Central Otago style’. His one criticism was that there were ‘some really polished wines but not many exciting ones. Tasmania probably has the most potential but isn’t moving along very fast’, he said.

For Knock, Adelaide Hills had made the biggest improvement, moving from jammier ‘Shiraz-like Pinots’ to more perfumed, voluptuous wines. Jones said they had a ‘nice gaminess’ and Rose said the potential was there for further improvement. ‘It’s never previously been a key region for Pinot Noir but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be. It’s all about vine age, commitment to vineyard management and winemaking, because the wines we saw that were really good just prove what can be done in Adelaide Hills’.

In terms of vintage variation, the judges were keen to convey that Australian winemakers were as much ‘at the mercy of the vintage’ as those in Europe. Jones found the 2012s ‘generous with great texture’ while Knock praised the ‘real character and perfume’ in the 2013s. Despite the 2012 vintage being much loved by Australian winemakers, Knock said the wines ‘aren’t necessarily for the UK palate where consumers want finesse as opposed to blocky power’.

As for ageing, the judges were confident the best wines would age well for six to seven years, but extolled the virtues of drinking them young too, particularly the 2012s.

So are they a good buy? ‘Pinot Noir and good value do not necessarily go together,’ said Rose. ‘Pinot and pleasure, yes, but you have to accept that you’re always going to be expected to pay for quality.’ And in that respect Australia has got it right, he said. ‘Against Burgundy, California and Oregon, Australia is an excellent midway point and, with what we’ve seen today, these Pinots definitely represent reasonable value.’

Our tasters each pick their top 3 wines from the tasting:

Roger Jones

Jones is chef/owner of the Michelin-starred The Harrow at Little Bedwyn. he travels regularly to Australia to enhance the 350 Australian wines from his 1,000-bin list, and judges on the Australia panel at the Decanter World Wine Awards. He is the consultant chef for The Park House Restaurant in Cardiff, advises numerous catering colleges and schools, and is also the wine consultant to the trade publication, The Caterer.

‘A comparison must be made to Decanter’s panel tasting of 81 Pinot Noirs from Victoria and Tasmania (August 2013 issue) where we awarded seven Outstandings – all to the 2010 vintage – and 12 Highly Recommendeds (half to 2010s), which clearly defined Australia as a Pinot Noir gold mine.

‘This current tasting highlighted the quality of the 2012 vintage – courtesy of our four Outstandings and 10 of the 16 Highly Recommendeds. While three fewer top wines, to me this tasting seemed less inspirational than last year (although admittedly there were four more wines in the second rank) but nevertheless the benchmark has been drawn: Australia makes great Pinot Noir.

‘It was slightly disappointing not to see Tasmania shine more at this tasting, although Derwent Valley did make an impact. Yarra Valley in Victoria continues to impress with textured wines that have both meaty attributes and fresh bright red fruit.

‘In general the wines showed clarity and freshness which makes them perfect partners to current trends for fresh, clean styles of cuisine.’

Kooyong, Haven, Mornington Peninsula 2012

Mornington Peninsula perfection! Classic New World, intense red berries with a touch of custard and lingering freshness from the bright, fresh acidity. A perfect match for grilled turbot with truffles and ceps. 18.5/20 (95/100) Drink 2015-2020

Lucy M Vineyard, Monomeith, Adelaide Hills 2011

This biodynamic, small-production wine is a new discovery for me. A classic match with Asian food such as Peking duck: rhubarb, morello cherries and spice fill the mouth, and there’s beautiful lingering freshness. Outstanding wine. 18 (93) Drink 2015-2025

Riorret, The Abbey, Yarra Valley 2012

Fresh, bright red fruit balances the meaty nuances. It is sweet and savoury with fresh lavender, thyme and rosemary in the background. Winemaker Steve Webber of De Bortoli delivers again with his single-vineyards Pinots. 18/20 Drink 2015-2020

Justin Knock MW

Knock makes wine in the Yarra Valley and is also director of the consultancy Purple Hand Wine Co. He has worked in wine retail and as a winemaker across in Australia. Following this, he moved to London to look after Southcorp’s wine education programme, media activities and local production in the UK and Europe. He has also been wine buying manager for Treasury Wine Estates.

‘Many lovely wines and few lows showing the evolution of Aussie Pinot. The 2013s, from a warmer year, are accessible and pretty already – a good contrast to the 2012s which also produced most of the top wines. The 2012s are more concentrated, with deeper structures and more tannin. Many need time to soften and will age beautifully.

‘It was great to see our four top wines from different regions, though not from the favourites of Mornington or Tasmania. Tassie Pinot is more akin to Central Otago: darker, riper and with more alcohol. The wines are more obtuse than those from the mainland so I think Tasmania has a way to go to fulfil its potential. Mornington wines are more sensuous and red-fruited, so the denser, tannic 2012 vintage perhaps didn’t match the natural regional style. Yarra has the most structured, focused, tense styles where whole bunch use is evident. Wines from Macedon (majestic, delicate and ethereal), Geelong ( thrilling, edgy) and Beechworth (complex, ambitious) impressed. Gippsland was disappointing as the wines were heavier and not as delicate as their cool-climate origins would suggest. Adelaide Hills was the biggest surprise. In the past it has produced richer, sweeter wines but I loved the tightness, complexity and silky balance many Hills producers achieved here.’

Curly Flat, Macedon Ranges 2012

Such a beguiling wine: shy, it slowly unfolded its way out of the glass. Beyond showing beautiful complexity, it had that indefinable perfume of great Pinot Noir that transcends simple varietal character. Power and presence. 19/20 (96/100) Drink 2015-2018

Pike & Joyce, Lenswood, Adelaide Hills 2012

A delightful surprise from the Hills. I was astonished at the sophistication of this wine, which wielded whole-bunch power with aplomb, much of its character coming from the edges (lavender and Lapsang Souchong tea) rather than the conventional sweet centre. Sublime. 18.75 (95+) Drink 2015-2025

Gembrook Hill, Yarra Valley 2012

Another cool-climate star that seemed to glow with effortless grace. It challenged on the nose with shy fruit and briar, but purred on the palate with a seamless texture and tangy persimmon acidity. Consistently one of the best boutique Upper Yarra producers for 30 years. 18.5 (95) Drink 2015-2018

Anthony Rose

Rose is the wine correspondent of the UK’s Independent and I newspapers and has won a number of awards for his writing. One of his specialist areas is wine investment, on which he contributes to Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine. A founding member of The Wine Gang, Rose also has his own blog on anthonyrosewine.com. He teaches the Leiths School of Food & Wine certificate.

‘Australia would doubtless insist that Pinot Noir had already come of age. But for me this was a sort of coming-of-age tasting, not only because of the overall quality now emerging but, equally exciting, because the wines we rated Outstanding or Highly Recommended came from six different regions: Macedon Ranges, Adelaide Hills, Geelong, Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula and Tasmania.

‘It’s no coincidence that these are all cool climate, either because of altitude, proximity to the ocean, or both. Tasting each group by region, I was tempted to think there are regional styles emerging, with Tasmania structured, almost Burgundian, Adelaide Hills delicate and savoury, Macedon Ranges super-elegant. But since style is also a product of producer and vintage, it may be some time before we can really get our heads round the specifics of regional style.

‘One of the joys of the 20 top wines in particular is that the alcohols are generally moderate and the oak well-handled, the result being that seductive combination of wonderful perfume, silky texture, juicy red and dark berry flavour and, above all, a moreish freshness.’

Farr, Farrside, Geelong 2012

Gary Farr of Geelong is well-known as one of Australia’s top producers of Pinot Noir and this, with its cool-climate delicacy of perfume, its structure and deliciously savoury fruit, echoes the Pinot Noirs of Burgundy which are clearly Farr’s model. 18.5/20 (95/100) Drink 2015-2020

Pike & Joyce, Lenswood, Adelaide Hills 2012

It’s perhaps no surprise that this wine comes from the cool heights of Lenswood in the Adelaide Hills, but what’s more surprising is that, at its very modest price of £18, it’s something of a bargain for such seductively juicy Pinot fruit quality. Snap it up! 18.5 (95) Drink 2015-2025

Innocent Bystander, Yarra Valley 2012

This producer may be better known in the UK currently for its moreish, low-alcohol pink Moscato fizz, but for me this was one of the best-value Pinot Noirs of the tasting with its stylish fruit quality and typically cool-climate freshness. A real bargain. 18.5 (95) Drink 2015-2020

About Australian Pinot Noir

Australian Pinot Noir has been riding a wave of feverish interest, enthusiasm and discovery. It’s come at a fortuitous time too: as global groundswell in Pinot is building, Australian wines are consistent, diverse and convincing.

The major change is that the base level of quality has improved. This is due to a greater understanding of how to best cultivate high-quality Pinot Noir, and a generational shift in the approach to vinification.

Another notable development is a growing confidence in the inherent qualities of Australia’s terroir. This is part of the zeitgeist among producers of all wine styles, but with Pinot being such an honest conduit for terroir, it has had a profound influence on the diversity of styles on offer. Add to this the quality of the 2012 and 2013 vintages, and the stage is set for a golden era in Australian Pinot Noir.

Around the regions

The Melbourne ‘dress circle’ of Pinot Noir regions surrounds the city. Geelong, Macedon Ranges, Yarra Valley, Gippsland and Mornington Peninsula are all sources of high-quality Pinot and each region has one or more icon producers. Geelong is one of the trickiest regions in which to master Pinot, yet the results of the best producers rank among Australia’s finest wines. They have an accentuated structure and powerful framework of ageworthy tannins.

Macedon is the coolest of Victoria’s Pinot regions and the wines are harvested significantly later here. Fine tannins underpinned by bright, assertive acidity, fragrant fruit and deep flavour makes for a compelling expression of Pinot.

The Yarra Valley has developed an almost Burgundian philosophy that champions vineyard as much as producer. The cooler, more elevated Upper Yarra playing home to the most sought-after sites on volcanic soils with older vines also drawing the attention of the region’s best winemakers.

The Mornington Peninsula has identified Pinot Noir as its most important wine style, and rightly so. It makes the most of its maritime surrounds to temper climatic extremities and manages to strike a style of Pinot that is squarely in the succulent, dark cherry zone. The wines here simultaneously harness broad popularity and critical acclaim.

Gippsland is a fledgling region that, like Geelong, has what it takes to make some of the most sought-after Pinots. It’s a cooler region that receives significant rainfall, which can be both a challenge and an asset for Pinot producers, imbuing the wines with an earthy and undergrowth edge.

The one and only South Australian region to make a convincing case around Pinot Noir is the large and diverse Adelaide Hills. Much of the terroir here is considered slightly warmer than ideal for high-quality Pinot production, but the cooler locations give a powerful style with lots of character.

Tasmania is the place of greatest current interest in Australian Pinot Noir production. It offers a genuinely cool climate, a diverse range of terroirs and has most recently attracted a rich pool of talent. The latter is most significant in terms of winemaking, as much of Tasmania’s Pinot is still made under contract. More winemakers operating more wineries will deliver more accurate expressions and greater quality. Momentum is well established in this direction.

Australian Pinot Noir: the facts

Yarra Valley 730ha of Pinot Noir under vine; second most important after Chardonnay

Tasmania 570ha under vine; most important variety (though most goes to sparkling wine)

Adelaide Hills 530ha under vine; a significant source of both sparkling and red wine

Mornington Peninsula 370ha under vine, most important variety

Geelong 165ha; most important variety

Gippsland 77ha; second most important after Chardonnay

Macedon 67ha; most important variety

Australian Pinot: know your vintages

2014 Smaller yields of high quality. Wines looking very promising in barrel.

2013 Warm, dry vintage. Fleshy, intense and attractive wines. Complete.

2012 Dream vintage. Perfect grapes, giving well-structured wines.

2011 Cool, wet season giving lighter, delicate wines. Disease was a major issue.

2010 Outstanding vintage in which the major Pinot Noir regions delivered wines of impressive structure and depth.

2009 Another warm, dry year in which a period of extreme heat culminated in the horrific Black Saturday bushfires.

2008 Warm to hot season that produced light, fine and elegant wines.

2007 Drought-affected with frost and bushfires in Victoria. Smoke taint issues.

2006 Early harvest giving sturdy tannins and good flavour intensity.

2005 Cool summer with a warm, dry finish. Rich, ripe wines with high alcohols.


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